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In re B.M.

Court of Appeal of Iowa

December 18, 2013

IN THE INTEREST OF B.M., Minor Child, L.M., Mother, Appellant.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Wright County, Paul B. Ahlers, District Associate Judge.

A mother appeals the termination of her parental rights to her one-year-old daughter.

Barbara J. Westphal, Belmond, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kathrine S. Miller-Todd, Assistant Attorney General, and Eric R. Simonson, County Attorney, for appellee.

Douglas Cook, Jewell, attorney and guardian ad litem for minor child.

Considered by Doyle, P.J., and Tabor and Bower, JJ.

TABOR, J.

A twenty-year-old mother, L.M., contests the termination of her parental rights to her one-year-old daughter, B.M. The State's case for termination focused on the mother's failure to meet a number of expectations set by the Department of Human Services (DHS). But the DHS did not ask L.M. to sign its "Contract of Expectations" until three days before the termination hearing. While both the case worker and L.M. testified to generally discussing DHS expectations earlier in the case, we find the belated effort to verify L.M.'s full appreciation of the listed expectations is cause for concern.

At the termination hearing, L.M. asked for additional time to work on her mental health issues and gain the stability necessary to act as a parent for her child. Her attorney noted L.M.'s progress in maintaining steady employment and finding housing. Although recommending termination, the child's guardian ad litem acknowledged L.M. was "somewhat getting her life on track."

The juvenile court nevertheless concluded: "the Mother's alternative request for another six months before termination is not warranted. The Mother points to nothing significant in her progress, her character, or her level of effort that will make things any different in six months." In our de novo review, we respectfully disagree. We acknowledge L.M.'s shortcomings as a parent are plain on the record. She has not taken full advantage of the visitations offered, and, thus, has not developed a strong bond with her daughter. She has placed a relationship with her boyfriend before her role as a parent. And most glaringly, she did not pursue mental health treatment until the eve of termination. Nonetheless, she has shown some promise in holding down a job and finding an affordable rental house. She has no substance abuse issues. And she has agreed to pursue mental health treatment after earlier expressing her reluctance to seek help. We reverse the termination and remand for the mother to be afforded an additional six months to work toward reunification with her daughter. See Iowa Code § 232.104(2)(b) (2013).

I. Background facts and proceedings

L.M. is a young mother. She was nineteen years old when she gave birth to B.M. in August of 2012. On November 2, 2012, L.M. was angry with her own mother for not allowing her go to Mason City for the evening and punched the window in the back door of the mother's house. Shattered glass fell within a few inches of the infant, who was sitting nearby in her car seat. L.M.'s mother called the police who arrested L.M. for criminal mischief. L.M.—who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, oppositional defiance disorder, and attention deficit disorder—reported blacking out during the incident. L.M. agreed to voluntarily place B.M. in the care of the child's maternal grandmother. B.M. has lived with her grandmother and step-grandfather for the duration of the case.

The county attorney filed a child-in-need-of-assistance (CINA) petition on December 20, 2012. Because of efforts to determine B.M.'s paternity[1] and other delays, the juvenile court did not adjudicate B.M. as a CINA until May 13, 2013. In that CINA order, the court directed L.M. to participate in all recommended mental health counseling and treatment. The order also addressed the Contract of Expectations as follows:

Any person who seeks placement of a child or closure of the case shall enter into a Contract of Expectations with DHS. The Contract of Expectations shall be written in an easy-to-understand language and shall set for the specific actions expected of the person in order for DHS to recommend that the Court take the requested action. It shall also set for the specific services to be provided. The parties are advised that the Court intends to refer to the Contract of Expectations when measuring success or failure in this matter. To make it easier to find the Contract of ...

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